Olive oil is a highly-prized commodity, for a very wide range of reasons. As a key ingredient of many elements in the Mediterranean diet, it is a pivotal component of Mediterranean cuisine. Across the region, household use of olive oil would be counted in dozens of litres a year.
Spain is the world’s biggest producer and user of olive oil: collectively, domestic consumers buy tens of thousands of tonnes every month. The country usually produces over a million tonnes of olive oil a year, much of it shipped to packers all around the world.
Greek olives are harvested in small quantities and pressed within hours of coming off the tree. Domestic Italian production is an even lower tonnage. Italian blenders are very skilled at procuring the right mix of flavours and colours of oil from all over the world to blend in bulk. The bottles were often marked “Prodotto in Italia” (“produced in Italy”) but this delightfully vague ambiguity was outlawed by the European Commission.
Pressing yields anything up to 20% by weight in oil. This ranges from the cheap and cheerful institutional canteen cooking oil, olive pomace oil, through to single estate, single variety specialist extra virgin olive oils containing less than 0.08% in free oleic acid. Like wine, the estate bottled oils are like an exclusive club: they are as distinctive as the groves they came from.
The next grade, virgin olive oil, will have less than 2% free oleic acid, which will be reflected in the taste. The different grades of virgin olive oil are too delicate to be suitable for deep frying, which is the main use for olive pomace oil. Pomace is the paste that is left over from the mechanical pressing process used to extract virgin oil grades. Due to its lower moisture content, olive pomace oil is better suited to high temperature applications.